I love furniture shopping. My wallet takes a hit every time, but like most folks, I keep my furniture for ages, so it doesn’t happen very often. And because it’s such a rare occasion, I get pretty excited when the time eventually comes to replace my old stuff with something new.
I used to pore over catalogs for inspiration and visit all my favorite stores for weeks to explore the possibilities. I mean, if I’m going to lay down a big chunk of change and live with this furniture for years to come, it has to be perfect, right? Problem is, my definition of perfect has evolved over the years, as I’ve become more concerned with the health, safety, and ethics of the products I buy.
In the past, I only needed my furniture to look great. Aesthetics are definitely still a top priority, but now I also need it to be non-toxic. I thought that would be fairly easy since I’m mostly drawn to wood furniture. But after shopping a few of my old haunts, I found that even natural materials can be glued, coated and treated with some pretty nasty stuff.
It was frustrating. I’d just moved and was anxious to settle in, but I had to slow down and do my research to make sure I didn’t buy anything I’d later regret. In the end, I bought a bed frame (below) and a dining table from local artisans that work with reclaimed wood. I also picked up a lamp and a bathroom shelf from some extremely talented makers on Etsy.
While I am extremely happy with my purchases, I’m equally dismayed with what’s being sold in the more mainstream stores that I used to love so much.
What’s In Your Furniture?
Unfortunately, I learned that most furniture is manufactured with all sorts of harmful chemicals that I don’t want inside my home. It’s scary to think about how much our indoor air quality can be compromised by the formaldehyde in particle wood, the glue vapors from rugs, the stain-proofing compounds on the couch, flame retardants on the mattress… the list goes on. Suddenly, our sanctuary becomes a toxic minefield.
It turns out that as these tiny particulates leach from our furniture, they rub onto our skin, float into our air, and settle onto the floor (where the kids and pets play). As they do, we inadvertently breathe the fumes, ingest the particles, and absorb these unwanted contaminants into our skin. These chemicals can make us feel drowsy and dizzy, give us headaches and rashes, and irritate our eyes, throat, and lungs. They can also trigger allergies, mess with our hormones, and contribute to a variety of serious health issues over time.
While it would be nearly impossible in today’s world to eliminate chemicals from our homes entirely, there are plenty of ways we can significantly reduce exposure. In this article, we’ll cover the common toxins to avoid in both new and second-hand furniture and the healthier, natural alternatives to choose in their place.
Buying new furniture? Choose natural materials.
As a good rule of thumb, stick to raw, natural materials when buying new furniture and décor, whenever possible.
Usually, when we think of natural furniture materials, we think of wood. So it’s worth noting that while pressed wood is mostly wood, it is typically not a healthy option. This is because makers usually glue it together with a resin made from formaldehyde, which is a dangerous toxin that is known to release into the air over time. If you do choose pressed wood, look for those using formaldehyde-free adhesives, if you can find them.
A healthy alternative to pressed wood is furniture made from solid wood such as birch, teak, walnut, oak, or bamboo (technically a grass). You will also want to make sure the wood is either untreated or that it’s finished with natural stains or paints, in place of solvent-based varnishes or other toxic coatings.
Please note that if you’re chemically sensitive, you may want to avoid pine furniture. While most enjoy its scent, pine does emit natural VOCs that can be quite strong and may trigger symptoms for the acutely sensitive.
Natural fabric upholstery
Upholstery made from polyester or nylon can cause itching and other unpleasantries. Instead, choose fabrics made from natural textiles such as wool, cotton, and hemp — ideally grown without the use of pesticides and manufactured without harmful toxins. You’ll also want to avoid upholstery that has been treated for stain, moth, or fire resistance.
Also, try to avoid furniture stuffed with synthetic foam, polystyrene, and other materials that are made with harmful petrochemicals. Natural alternatives include fillings made from cotton, kapok, natural latex (not synthetic latex), and coconut coir.
Offgas chemicals from synthetic furniture
If you do buy new furniture or décor made from synthetic materials or coated with chemical solvents, be sure to offgas them for several weeks before using them. This is especially important for anything that will live in your bedroom/sleeping areas.
It’s best to leave these products outdoors while they offgas, if that option is available to you. Otherwise, set them in the room you use the least and open the windows. After sealing any vents in the room, turn on a fan to better circulate the air. Then close the door behind you and put a towel under the door to keep the fumes from flowing back into the house.
Common furniture materials to avoid or to offgas prior to use:
- Pressed wood / MDF / chipboard
- Furniture stuffed with foam, polystyrene, synthetic latex, or other synthetic fills
- Upholstery that has been treated for stain, moth, or fire resistance
- Furniture made from or coated with PVC (also known as vinyl)
Choose these healthier furniture materials whenever possible:
- Natural wood or bamboo
- Stainless steel and other metals
- Glass or ceramic
- Pesticide-free wool, cotton, and hemp exteriors
- Fillings made from cotton, kapok, natural latex, or coconut coir
Natural materials can often be more expensive than synthetics, so hardwood furniture or bamboo accessories, for example, may not be in the budget. If that’s the case, second-hand furniture may be a more viable option.
Buying / acquiring second-hand furniture
You typically don’t have to be as concerned with the manufacturing materials when buying second-hand furniture, as you would with new furniture. This is because any chemical vapors would likely have off-gassed before making their way to your home.
However, that doesn’t mean these new-to-you items won’t smell musty, smoky, or otherwise funky. And on the off-chance they don’t smell at all, it’s still a good idea to clean any second-hand items thoroughly before using them.
You’ll likely find that white vinegar and baking soda will clean, disinfect, and deodorize most items well enough. However stubborn smells will need a bit more oomph. Here are a few tips to get the stink out.
Sanding vintage furniture
Sanding is a great way to remove foul odors from second-hand wood furniture since most (if not all) of the smell will be at the surface. Do be careful if the furniture is musty, stained, or is coated with old paint, as you don’t want to inhale any contaminants. Even if the wood is clean and raw, it’s still not safe to inhale wood dust. (Read about safely removing old paint.)
All sanding should happen outdoors, when possible, and with your windows closed, so the dust can’t get in. The farther away you are from the house while sanding, the better. And always wear safety glasses, gloves, and a vapor mask with a P100 rating.
Note that to remove the smell entirely, you may also need to sand the inside spaces of any drawers or cabinets.
Protecting yourself with a vapor mask & goggles
It’s always a smart idea to protect yourself with a vapor mask and protective goggles, whether you’re sanding your second-hand furniture or wiping it down with a cleaner for the first time. A mask with a P100 rating is the highest for personal respiratory protection and can block at least 99% of airborne particles.
Always be sure your mask fits properly. And if what you’re sanding (or cleaning) is covered in paint or solvents, consider using a vapor cartridge that also blocks gas. If you start to smell odors through the mask or it becomes difficult to take a breath, it’s time to replace the cartridge and/or the filter.
Deodorizing thrift store smells
There’s a company called EnviroKlenz that uses a completely non-toxic, earth mineral technology to neutralize odors. Their products are specifically formulated for the chemically sensitive and are highly effective.
Use their Everyday Odor Eliminator to spray down musty thrift store furniture and washable fabrics, such as throw pillows, rugs, and upholstery. Their Odor Eliminating Pads are also great for getting the funk out of enclosed spaces, such as dresser drawers and cabinets.
Choosing easier-to-clean materials
When you’re shopping for second-hand furniture and décor, you can minimize the risk of bringing contaminants into your home by choosing materials that are relatively easy to clean.
Examples of easier-to-clean materials:
- Real wood or metal dressers, bookshelves, and desks
- Glass, mirrors
- Lamps (but not the lampshade)
- Real wood dining table and non-upholstered chairs
- Sculptures and non-porous art
- Easily washable fabrics such as curtains, small rugs, and small throw pillows
Consider buying the more difficult-to-clean materials as new, when possible. This is because off-gassing chemicals from new items tends to be far easier than trying to remove bed bugs, long-standing mold, and mustiness from older items.
Materials that are more difficult to clean and better to purchase new:
- Mattresses and pillows
- Upholstered items (sofas, armchairs)
- Leather and suede
Take your time and have fun
Sure, finding furniture that’s both healthy and beautiful can take a little extra effort, especially if you’re used to visiting the more commercially recognized shops. But the pays off is absolutely worth it. Not only will your chemical-free furniture contribute to a healthier home, but if you end up buying locally or from an Etsy artisan, you’ll be filling your space with unique pieces that also tend to be great conversation starters with guests!